And the magic begins
When ARMINTA WALLACEheard that Terry Pratchett was giving a masterclass in creative writing she jumped at the chance to learn from the famously outspoken author, who, after a slightly awkward start, recalled how he got into the fantasy business
HE IS by turns cranky and querulous and laugh-out-loud funny. Dressed in priestly black, his white beard glowing under the fluorescent light, he’s very English and, at least to begin with, palpably hostile. It’s like coming face to face with a quixotic, real-world mixture of George Bernard Shaw and Grandad from Only Fools and Horses.
Prof Sir Terry Pratchett, whose science- fiction, fantasy and children’s books have sold some 70 million copies worldwide, and whose Discworld series has offered an alternative, if highly recognisable, universe to a generation of readers, is giving a creative-writing masterclass to the master-of-philosophy students at Trinity College’s Oscar Wilde Centre for Irish Writing. It’s part of a month he will spend as adjunct professor of English at TCD in its drive to spearhead “a new approach to the creative arts, technologies and culture”. And it begins, like many of Pratchett’s books, with a bit of a bang.
“Let me tell you what you’re doing wrong so far,” he tells the assembled graduates. The professor doesn’t approve of creative-writing groups. “The successful writer is a loner,” he declares. The students look dubious, as well they might. They have, after all, abandoned their garrets and garden sheds to pick up some pearls of writerly wisdom. Pratchett is famously outspoken and totally fearless. Even so, nobody expected him to lay about them with a big stick.
Then, almost dreamily, Pratchett starts to recall how he got into the fantasy business. And the magic begins. He got into writing, he says, because he was a reader: the kind of reader who reads “every darned book” in the library. “What interested me was incongruity. Things out of place. Things that seemed curious and strange.” He read, for example, about the man who towed an iceberg from New England to India, selling ice to people who could afford it.
“This is not really about writing. But there’s a bloody good novel in there. I read anything that’s going to be interesting. But you don’t know what it is until you’ve read it. Somewhere in a book on the history of false teeth there’ll be the making of a novel.”
Working as a journalist helped him hone his craft, he says – a strange observation coming from a fantasy writer, you might think. But he would be sent to a coroner’s court to cover, say, the results of a suicide. Events in the real world, even dreadful moments in his own family, such as his father’s funeral, were, as he puts it, grist to his writerly mill. “And if you don’t know what grist means, this is a bloody university – go and look it up.”
This time his crankiness sparks uneasy laughter around the packed seminar room, because an elephant is crammed in here as well. Three years ago Pratchett was diagnosed with a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s. He made a two-part documentary for the BBC about living with the illness, which was broadcast in February 2009. Earlier this year he gave the annual Richard Dimbleby lecture, entitled Shaking Hands with Death, on the topic of “assisted suicide”. Pratchett objects to the term but supports the action and has stated on more than one occasion that he will take his own life before his disease progresses to a critical point.
The elephant in the room is, therefore, particularly big and awkward. Happily, Pratchett is more than a match for it. Every so often he loses the thread of what he has been talking about. “Somebody ask me a question,” he’ll declare when this happens. Or he’ll pose a sudden, out-of-the-blue challenge. “How many people here want to write, or would write, a fantasy book?” A few shy hands sneak up to shoulder level. He has some advice for them: avoid “wizards and witches and the other flora and fauna of fantasy”. Stick to real people.
“How many of you have read a book called London Labour and the London Poor?” Another couple of hands venture upwards. The book is a social history, written by a contemporary of Charles Dickens; a chronicle of the incredible deprivation of early Victorian London, the richest city in the world at the time.
“For me this was fantasy that was happening in the real world,” Pratchett says. It told of people who would save up to buy a tray to put around their necks so they could sell hot pork sandwiches for a living. It calculated the amount of money they’d spend on mustard. In passing, it explained that they’d pick up corpses and take them to the morgue because a bounty was paid for that service. “It was stranger than Camelot and a great deal nastier. The very early Victorian world was a world full of stories untold.”
Do you always know how your stories will end, somebody asks. “I never plan. Ever. I have an idea. A book might begin with the hero trying to push his pencil down his sock because his wife insists on knitting very, very hairy socks for him and he doesn’t dare tell her that they itch, because he loves her.” It’s a matter of riffing with the words for a while, he says. “Playing chopsticks on the keyboard, waiting for a melody to turn up. Listening to what notes are making sense.”
He didn’t know what the ending of Small Godswas going to be until the last page. “It’s called narrative dynamic. All options close and close and close – and there’s your ending.” Someone asks about his collaboration with Neil Gaiman on Good Omens. It worked, he says, because neither of them had egos. They batted ideas back and forth. Another collaborator turned up to their first meeting with a flow chart. “I said, ‘Well, do you know, I usually make it up as I go along.’”
He’s doing exactly that for this masterclass – and he’s playing a blinder. When the closing remarks have been made, and he has garnered several rounds of wholeheartedly warm applause, Pratchett offers a wicked grin.
“Now, what was I going to tell you? Oh, yes. It was apparently the secret of writing a perfect book,” he says. He’s going to squeeze the secrets in anyway.
First secret: everything is research. “When I was writing Good Omens I was typing away and the radio was on. It was a Shakespeare play – The Tempest, I think. And I found myself typing: ‘Hell is empty and all the devils are here.’ Be open to the universe.”
Second secret. “Keep your vocabulary as wide as you can. I have some difficulty with the word ‘cool’, and I’m not too bothered about the word ‘awesome’. People like me are looking to people like you guys of the next generation to deal with this s**t. It’s like seeing a rock guitarist pick up a Fender Stratocaster and hold it the wrong way.”
The third secret has to do with sheer hard work. “First draft: let it run. Turn all the knobs up to 11. Second draft: hell. Cut it down and cut it into shape. Third draft: comb its nose and blow its hair. I usually find that most of the book will have handed itself to me on that first draft. I don’t know how. It has to do with my subconscious – the subconscious of someone who’s been doing it for a long time. Endless reading and endless thinking about what I’ve read.”
Pratchett’s final remark is almost drowned out in a sea of applause and movement and people coming forward with books for him to sign. “It must be possible,” he muses, half to us and half to himself. “Otherwise somebody like me would not have been able to do it.”